Spitting in America - Spittoons of Yesterday, a Photo Gallery
Spittoons for Sale - 1893
Spittoons, Common Household and Public Objects - Photos from the Golden Age of Spitting in America
Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, spittoons were as common in American households as pots and pans and as common in American public places as trash cans. Spitting in America was an accepted activity, and the production and maintenance of spittoons were businesses in themselves. Spittoons embodied every sort of design and material from the perfunctory to the bizarre, from the durable to the fragile. But what all spittoons had in common was utility: spittoons proliferated for the purpose of catching spit.
We are fortunate that a large body of spittoon photos from those early years is available to us on the Internet. Not only do these photos document the forms and materials of spittoons, they also document the everyday life that went on in the golden age of spitting in America.
As it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, these historical photos of spitting in America tell stories that you can experience in ways that words alone could never convey.
Banks, barber shops, business offices, court rooms, and saloons provided spittoons for spitting in America. Imagine walking into your local bank today, or accountant’s office for that matter, and seeing a spittoon. Even more engaging for the imagination, think about watching someone spit into it. Not so long ago, this object for collecting spit would have been a common sight, and you would have thought nothing of it.
Spitting in the Bank
This 1910 view of the interior of the City National Bank, Kearney, Nebraska shows gleaming wood and marble walls, a spotless tile floor, and three brass spittoons polished to a mirror shine. Notice that two of the spittoons flank the entrance to a small office; perhaps one was used upon entering and the other upon exiting. Also notice that the spittoons stand against the walls. One has to wonder how much spittle landed on the walls instead of in the spittoons.
Spitting in the Barber Shop
In 1920, eight barbers posed for this formal photo in Draper’s Barber Shop, Martinsville, Virginia. White shirts, neatly knotted short ties, and meticulous grooming present these barbers as true professionals. Three spittoons on the checkerboard floor visually complement the crisp white shirts and lead the eye to the back of the shop where a ninth man stands against the wall, just behind what appears to be a watercooler. Were the shop’s spittoons always placed in the middle of the floor, where they could be tripped over?
Spitting in the Office
Young men, with shirt sleeves loosened and rolled, posed in a South Pacific Railroad Lines office in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1917. Notice the high ceilings, ceiling fan, and open window, necessities for working in an office in the Louisiana heat. One spittoon is clearly visible in the foreground; most likely there are more. If the young man holding papers stands up too quickly, will his right foot wind up in the spittoon?
Spitting in the Courtroom
Three quite serious-looking gentlemen sit in chairs, holding their hats, in a Chicago, Illinois courtroom in the 1910s. The spittoon seems awkwardly placed in this small floor area, inviting an accident should the people who are standing and facing away from the camera take a step backward without looking. But then, if you must injure yourself tripping over a spittoon, perhaps the best place to be for a quick claim resolution is in the courtroom.
Spitting in the Saloon
This elaborately carved and appointed bar and back mirror dominated the saloon of the Columbian Hotel built in 1879 in Trinidad, Colorado. Notice the absence of bar stools. Drinking in the 1880s must have been a serious, stand-up business. Two spittoons are safely tucked beneath the bar’s brass footrest. Hanging from the bar are two towels. Although I shudder at the idea of what lurked inside a spittoon, I’m absolutely terrified of what those towels might have been used for.
The Rich and Famous Spat in Spittoons, Too
Lest we think that this preoccupation with spitting belonged only to the unnamed masses, consider these photos of famous people and the spittoons in their lives.
Who Cleaned the Spittoons?
This photo from the 1930s shows working men who made their living by cleaning out spittoons that were used by men of a different social order--those men of prestige who conducted the business of our country. Poet Langston Hughes captured the thoughts, feelings, harsh reality, and spirituality of those who tended spittoons in his poem Brass Spittoons .
Clean the spittoons, boy…
Two dollars a day…
Buy shoes for the baby…
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord…
To this day, there are spittoons in the Capitol building of the US and in the court of the US supreme justices. These spittoons are not used, but they are maintained as symbols of our American way of life.
Death in Denver, 1920
As spitting and spittoons spoke of everyday life, so too did they speak of death. No one knows this woman’s demise. Perhaps her death was accidental, perhaps she was a victim of murder, or perhaps she died of the tuberculosis that was carried in spittle. There is no record to tell how or why she died. One can only speculate.
The death room appears to be an office with its large roll-top desk and phone suspended on a retractable arm. The dark and light contrasts are reminiscent of a Jan Vermeer painting, and I do wonder if this photo were retouched in the darkroom to create these dramatic contrasts.
From this evocative photo we can see that a real and present aspect of her life was a spittoon. Positioned next to a radiator, near her head, the spittoon was as common an object in her life as a cooking pot or pan, and kept her company in death as well.
Why So Much Spitting in America in Those Years?
Until the wide-spread use of cigarettes during and after World War I, the most common nicotine products were chewing tobacco and cigars. Since a tobacco chewer does not ingest the tobacco nor most of the saliva chewing produces, spitting is necessary. Although spitting is not necessary for a cigar smoker, cigar aficionados took advantage of the widespread presence of spittoons as well, demonstrating that “Why do guys spit?” is a question that belongs not only to today.
Spitting in America Today
Today, spitting in America is considered by most to be an unnecessary and repulsive act, to the point where anti-spitting laws are in place nearly everywhere in the nation. That these anti-spitting laws are largely unenforced is another matter.
All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.